Monday, 27 January 2014

Slapton Sands Disaster, Devon

The Second World War that broke out in September 1939 had a profound effect on some parts of Devon, but left others untouched. Exeter and Plymouth were both heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, causing heavy civilian casualties. The naval base at Plymouth came in for particularly heavy bombing, and throughout the war it suffered the dismal sight of ships returning with wounded men on board – or of ships not returning at all.

By the spring of 1944 the worst of the bombing was over, though a few sneak raiders still came over from time to time. Instead the new focus was on the decline of Germany’s military power as her armies lost ground in both Russia and the Mediterranean. It had for months been anticipated that Britain and her allies would seek to invade mainland France from Britain. Vast numbers of men and enormous stores of equipment were being brought into Britain in preparation for the attack that would later become known as D-Day.

A vital part of the preparations was to try out tactics for landing men, artillery and tanks from the sea on to the beaches of Normandy where the invasion would take place. The military planners had been working on their preferred methods for months, but nobody was certain if they would work in practice. What was needed was a practical experiment, and that is where Slapton Sands came into the picture.

The planners wanted to try out their ideas in as realistic a fashion as possible. That meant finding a beach somewhere in Britain that matched the target in France as closely as possible. It needed to be the same size, made up of the same sort of sand and to shelve out to sea at the same gradient. Moreover the area immediately inland needed to mimic that of the invasion beach. Only then could the troops earmarked for the real invasion try out the tactics to see if they would work properly.

Teams of surveyors toured the country’s coast looking for places that exactly matched the strict criteria they had been given, though none of them was told why they had to find beaches of such a precise configuration. Finally a surveyor came to Slapton and found that it was a perfect fit for one of the scenarios he had been given. Unknown to him the match was to the invasion beach codenamed Utah. Not only was the beach identical to that in France but it was backed by a strip of marshy land fed by streams from inland that were of the same sogginess and extent as those behind Utah Beach.

The staff officers planning D-Day were delighted. They set in train the preparatory work for Exercise Tiger, a full-scale pretend invasion that would include not only the first wave of assault infantry and tanks, but also a second wave of support troops landing in numbers on to the established beachhead. The village of Slapton was taken over for military use and all civilians moved out. “To be suddenly evacuated from their homes and means of livelihood at short notice was not a pleasant prospect, wrote Admiral Leatham who was in charge of the operation, “but they took it in good part, realising that their sacrifice was a necessary contribution to the success of the Second Front”.


Battlefield Walks: Devon [Paperback]


1 comment:

  1. The Slapton Sands exercise was a disaster - 638 men were killed when the landing ships that were landing the troops were discovered and attacked by German E-boats, while a further 300-odd men were killed from "friendly fire" from HMS Hawkins. The whole episode was hidden from public view, probably to not tip the Germans off that the Allies were practicing a landing, which in reality would be on the French coast.